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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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ANDREW L. URBAN talks to writer/director Bill Bennett, co-writer Jennifer Bennett and the stars of his latest film, the romantic epic, In A Savage Land, a film that has its genesis in an attic when Bennett was eight years old.

Set in the late 1930's, In A Savage Land is the story of a newly married anthropologist husband and wife team Phillip and Evelyn (Martin Donovan and Maya Stange) who travel to an island group in New Guinea to study the sexual mores of a group of villagers. Their relationship begins to break down when the woman realises her husband is wrongly interpreting the research to further his own academic ambitions. She enlists the help of a pearl trader, Mick (Rufus Sewell), to travel to another island where she intends to research a village of headhunters, and begins to fall in love with him. By the time she returns to her husband, war has broken out in the Pacific and the Japanese are poised to invade their island.

"It deals with sexual and gender politics and male / female power"

Does this sound like a film Bill Bennett would make? He of Mortgage, Backlash, Spider & Rose, Kiss or Kill? He stares a moment. "Thematically it is actually similar to my other films…three people in an alien landscape, and the central character is a woman. And it deals with sexual and gender politics and male / female power. It’s different in scale, scope and period, of course…period was difficult to get my head round."

The period is a consequence of the story. Bennett had always been fascinated by New Guinea’s Trobriand Islands, ever since the age of 8, when finding old photos taken by his war photographer father. "What at first looked like a sexual paradise turned out to be something even more complicated. So the idea of a love story set against this complex social structure evolved – and having the central characters as anthropologists would enable us to step into the culture and examine it." As before, his wife Jennifer worked with Bennett on the script, but this time, her credit is up front and bold. They also share producing credits, in what is an appropriate affirmation of Jennifer’s significance in the filmmaking partnership.

At around A$12 million, In a Savage Land is a high budget film for Australia, especially as it isn’t financed by one of the majors, as was Dark City and Oscar & Lucinda, for example. The investors include Universal Pictures (or PolyGram Filmed Entertainment, as it was then) for Australian rights, Beyond Films for international sales rights, German film investor, Hollywood Partners, South Australian Film Corporation, and the Australian Film Finance Corporation "who was very supportive from the very first draft," says Bennett.

The six week shoot on the islands was followed by a two week shoot in Adelaide.

"It delivered on all counts"

The New Guinea shoot was hell. But Bennett knew it would be. Before he left, he wondered aloud if he was mad to do it. It was chosen for its authenticity, for its untouched wilderness and its savagery. It delivered on all counts. But it took its toll, so isolated and undeveloped as to be the equivalent of shooting on the moon. A hot, steamy, jungle-covered moon. With wily locals who squeezed every advantage out of the strangers.

But it’s not a Discovery Channel travelogue; "In the end, it is a romance – if it’s possible to reduce it to one single word. But it deals with complex things…and I suppose it’s not a traditional romance; the characters are all flawed."

But creating this savage and romantic world has enormous risks for a filmmaker whose terms of reference are the Australian outback, or urban misfits. "Creatively, as a director, seeing these actors step into the skins of the characters and lift these people off the page has been most satisfying," he says. "It could have been naf . . . with lesser actors. I believe if you aspire to anything out of the ordinary, there is a risk of failure. So it’s yet to be seen if it’s successful…" These doubts are always swirling, and Bennett wonders aloud: "I don’t know if it’s mainstream…it’s a thinking person’s film. But look at Dr Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, or The Piano – they’re all thinking people’s films."

"I think I work best with emotional colours" director/writer Bill Bennett

Is this his private code for the films that form a role model for In A Savage Land? Is it up himself juxtaposition? Is it just that they are all highly emotional films: "But that’s what I do best. . . I think I work best with emotional colours."

When Rufus Sewell first read the script, his reaction was "Oh my God, a real movie part! I was very excited reading the script. It struck me like it was a role a Robert Mitchum or a Humphrey Bogart could play. Then I went and took it in the opposite direction. And I’m surprised to hear it described simply as a romance – it’s misleading because it’s not about people or events being romanticised. You tend to think of something not gritty and realistic."

It’s telling that an actor of Sewell’s experience found the role enormously challenging. "My first thought was, can I do it. . . or would I fuck it up? I thought probably I’d fuck it up. So I thought I should be brave."

Martin Donovan – the American actor best known for his work with Hal Hartley (but not limited to that) – is overwhelmed by it all. "I’m really glad I did this – I’ve had an incredible experience. The ingredients have all come together in the film – the location, the people, and a culture we’ve never seen before. It’s a traditional epic kind of story and style of shooting, almost cinema verite, a very effortless look, which has a magical effect. It’s very cohesive."

"It’s like a marathon, making a film like this" actress Maya Stange

This, despite the fact that Donovan found playing his character involved a good deal of pain. "It was painful – personally confronting in some aspects of Phillip’s crisis of faith and how he thinks he was, versus how the world perceives him. It rips him apart, and I had to deal with that pain – how his relationship fell apart."

Donovan’s refuge was Bennett’s directing approach. "With each new director you go through a dance, trying to develop some trust – both ways. I think I can make myself terribly insecure about the process and need to know they can protect me. But while I did less improv on a script than usual, Bill listened, and we had a very healthy relationship. It’s also probably the first film I’ve been on when we had not a single day of tension, or pressured people lashing out."

The newcomer on the set is Maya Stange, an Australian actress in her third movie – but her first lead role (nominated as Best Actress for it). "I knew this would be confronting and testing," she says. "I expected I would lose the plot at some point and I was a bit disappointed when I didn’t. I worried that maybe I wasn’t doing it properly. But Bill Bennett and I did lots of preparation – four months researching and training physically, which was the best thing. Swimming, gym, yoga and running . . . It’s like a marathon, making a film like this."

The role itself put a strain on Stange: "Playing a role that is emotionally demanding can put you into an irrational head space in yourself, making it difficult to operate with the technical demands of filmmaking while keeping emotionally on track. No tantrums or anything, but it’s an amazing skill to live on two planes."

"...when you do work with good artists and filmmakers"

But Stange seems to manage it; in her early 20s, she seems to have a pool of wisdom at her disposal: "As an actress, you live a thousand lives and you learn to experience things you wouldn’t otherwise. It’s always a life changing experience – and this is an extreme case. What this [filmmaking experience] has left me with as an actor and as a human being, is a sense of being relaxed about who I am. That’s what you get when you do work with good artists and filmmakers."

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In A Savage Land has eight nominations in the 1999 AFI Awards, presented November 13, 1999, telecast live on SBS TV from 8.30pm

Best Director - Bill Bennett

Best Actress - Maya Stange

Best Cinematography - Danny Ruhlmann ACS

Best Sound - Toivo Lember, Gethin Creagh, Peter Smith, Wayne Pashley

Best Music - David Bridie

Best Production Design - Nicolas McCallum

Best Costumes - Edie Kurzer

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